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Behind the Headlines: Austria Set to Talk Restitution, but Some Jews Balk at the Idea

After years of failing to address the issue of Holocaust restitution, Austria’s new government says it wants to quickly enter negotiations with survivors and Jewish groups to settle outstanding claims.

However, some in the Jewish world see this sudden change of heart as an attempt to dampen the criticism of the governing coalition. The government is being criticized for including the far-right Freedom Party of Jorg Haider, who has made sympathetic comments regarding the Nazis.

The Austrian offer is forcing those who have worked on securing restitution for elderly survivors into a dilemma: Do they negotiate with Austria despite Haider’s presence in the government or do they boycott talks to show their opposition to Haider, thus forcing survivors to wait even longer for a measure of justice.

While acknowledging the “unquestioned rights” of Holocaust victims, the World Zionist Organization on Tuesday called on Jews not to deal with the current Austrian government on restitution issues.

“Haider’s real nature is evident in his latest offer to buy us out with offers of money,” said Sallai Meridor, chairman of the WZO and Jewish Agency Executive.

“It must be made clear that we will not negotiate with this government while at the same [time] we encourage every other country to disengage from it,” Meridor said in announcing a new campaign to isolate Austria.

“Only standing together, working with the rest of the free world, we will stand a chance to succeed in this mission.”

Until now restitution discussions with Austria have focused mainly on Austrian banks, with Jewish groups seeking reparations for bank accounts and other assets seized from Austrian Jews during the Holocaust.

Other Israeli and Jewish officials also have expressed skepticism about Austria’s desire to deal with such outstanding issues as compensating slave laborers and settling unpaid insurance claims.

Avraham Hirchson, a survivor who heads the Knesset committee that deals with Holocaust-era restitution, told a congressional committee here last week that “we will not cut any short deal with any country.”

“The blood of my brother and my sister, that were in the chambers, are shouting at me and saying `Don’t go into any agreement with this government when Haider is in power,'” he added in his testimony to the House Banking Committee.

Israel Singer, secretary-general of the World Jewish Congress, told the House committee that Jews are concerned that the new Austrian government is acting out of “embarrassment” rather than in good faith.

“We should not have to crawl to those whom we do not choose to sit with,” he said.

Despite their concerns, organizations that deal with reparations issues have not yet decided how to respond to the Austrian offer to negotiate quickly, an offer that was made by Chancellor Wolfgang Schuessel.

Elan Steinberg, executive director of the WJC, said that his group; the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany; the Austrian Jewish community; and Austrian survivors living outside of Austria are currently discussing how to respond to Austria’s offer.

He said, however, that “reparations are an obligation of Austria,” no matter which government is in power.

Last year, Bank Austria, the nation’s largest bank, reached a $40 million settlement under which it agreed to make restitution for profiting from seizures of bank accounts.

Under the settlement’s terms, the bank also agreed to issue an apology for its wartime actions.

This was especially important to some Jewish leaders, who wanted the restitution efforts to have a moral as well as financial dimension.

The Bank Austria settlement did not extend to other Austrian firms, including companies that profited from the use of Holocaust-era slave laborers or insurance companies.

Lawrence Eagleburger, chairman of the International Commission on Holocaust Era Insurance Claims, said on Tuesday that he has written to three Austrian insurance companies urging them to join the commission, which is seeking to settle outstanding insurance claims against European insurers

Eagleburger, who outlined the process by which survivors and their heirs can file claims for unpaid insurance policies between 1920 and 1945, said he will continue to urge the companies to join the claims process, as the new Austrian government has urged them, despite possible concerns from Jewish groups.

“Jewish organizations may not want to deal with them but I intend to get them into the commission and I don’t see anything wrong with it,” he said.

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